welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Philosophy of Poetry

Roger Caldwell finds philosophy & poetry to be mutually alien.

For over two decades I have written a good deal of poetry and poetry criticism. I have also in that period written on philosophy, and reviewed numerous philosophy books. Up to now the two activities have been conducted separately: the philosophy that I have been concerned with has had nothing to do with poetry, and the poetry I have written, although sometimes informed by philosophy (it could hardly be otherwise given the nature of my preoccupations), does not aspire to be philosophy. There are things one says in philosophy that could find no place in poetry, and vice versa. One may be both a poet and a philosopher, but not at the same time: the two belong to very different spheres of activity.

Or so I had assumed. A new collection of essays boldly entitled The Philosophy of Poetry would attempt to persuade me otherwise. Yet what questions would such a philosophy attempt to address? Certainly there is little interest in giving a definition of poetry, for there is no reason to assume that there is any such thing as an ‘essence’ of poetry. In practice we have little difficulty in distinguishing poetry from prose. It is only at the periphery – in various forms of experimentalism, for example – that doubt is likely to occur; and that doubt will be resolved if, in time, such work is generally accepted as belonging to the genre of poetry.

In general, what are the problems or perplexities with which poetry presents us that the philosopher is better equipped to deal with than the literary critic? After all, poetry has not always fared well with philosophers (nor, for that matter, has philosophy fared very well in the hands of poets). Aristotle had to come to poetry’s defence after Plato declared that it was for the most part dangerous and mendacious. German thinkers from Hegel to Heidegger and Adorno have interrogated poetry for what nuggets of philosophical truth it contains, but the poor poet is rarely left to speak for himself. In French thought, from Sartre to Badiou, it has become almost as de rigueur for the philosopher to offer meditations on poetry, with whatever degree of cogency, as it is to philosophize on love. Love and poetry may also be central to the life of analytical philosophers in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but they have rarely been central to his or her writings. With respect to the latter at least, things may be changing, as the philosophy of art is undergoing something of a revival.

Poetic Language

In his introduction to this collection of essays, its editor John Gibson tells us that the emphasis here is on modern poetry. In modern poetry, meaning is latent rather than overt, or is put into question, and any sense of narrative or anecdote is fractured or subverted. For Gibson, any theory based on the concept of narrative would be inapplicable to poetry in the modernist paradigm. (It is pertinent to point out that most poetry, whether of the past or of the present, doesn’t obey this paradigm.) Yet, if we need different philosophical theories for each different genre, style, or period of poetry (which, after all, are scarcely watertight categories), this doesn’t say much for the scope of theory. We are led inexorably from the generalities of the philosopher theorizing about a particular artform, to the specifics of the literary critic giving an account of a particular poem. In practice, regardless of Gibson’s strictures, many of the contributors to this volume are happy to generalize about poetry as such.

Not all of these generalizations are exactly ground-breaking. To be told that “words are central to the art of poetic writing” is not to be told much, given that writing of any kind requires words. When Ronald de Sousa goes on to claim that poetry is “about language” in the same way that painting is “about paint” it is pertinent to question both parts of the statement. Certainly we might savour the sound of the words of a poem or admire the brush-strokes of a painting, but we do not go to the poem solely to find an arrangement of words any more than we go into an art-gallery to look at patches of paint. What is important is what the words and the paint convey. Indeed, de Sousa implicitly contradicts himself in the next paragraph, talking of the poet’s use of language to transcend language, to convey something beyond the words. But this too isn’t a very illuminating way of formulating the matter either, since we normally use language to refer to something beyond itself. This is surely why we have language in the first place. Nor is it the case, as de Sousa suggests, that surrealist poetry is especially marked by a density of language. Rather, surrealist poetry is marked by its frequency of improbable juxtapositions, which is another thing entirely. A Shakespeare sonnet is likely to be more linguistically dense than any surrealist poem by virtue of the concentration demanded by its form. Its words can often be construed in different, even incompatible, ways. So whereas instrumental prose, such as that of philosophy, aims at a single unambiguous meaning, poetry may allow multiple meanings, and demand various interpretations. This richness of utterance is one of the reasons we value poetry; but again it is not the only reason, nor is it the case that all poetic utterances are hard to fathom. Indeed, it is remarkable how many of the most often-quoted lines of poetry are not only not in the least obscure but also free of metaphor. One thinks of Thomas Gray observing Eton schoolboys at play: “Where ignorance is bliss / ‘Tis folly to be wise.” Even Keats, whose language is typically richly suggestive and sensuous, offers the bald generality that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” These sentiments may or may not be persuasive in themselves – they may not even be true – but they are made memorable by being embedded in a formal arrangement of words marked by the use of rhythm and rhyme.

Jesse Prinz and Eric Mandelbaum remind us rightly in this volume that, unlike instrumental prose, the smallest alteration in a poem may impact its value. They then unintentionally go on to illustrate that very point by misquoting a famous couplet from T.S. Eliot: “In the room women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Why does this sound rhythmically lame? Restore the definite article before the word ‘women’, say the lines aloud, and you will realize why Eliot put it there.

William Wordsworth looking stormy and Romantic by Benjamin Robert Haydon

Form, Content & Context

Much of the muddle one finds oneself in when theorizing about poetry results from the fact that we look at a poem from two not easily reconcilable perspectives: we demand that the poem be successful by virtue of its form, yet we also find its significance by virtue of what it communicates. A poem is incompetent if its form is flawed; trivial if it fails to make us feel or think more deeply. Considerations such as these give rise to notions such as the heresy of paraphrase and the indissociability of form and content. Both notions (insofar as they are not two ways of implying the same thing) present problems of their own.

In Peter Lamarque’s formulation, the first idea tells us that the meaning of a poem is not exhausted by its prose paraphrase. In many cases this is surely the case. But not in all. Take, for example, Wordsworth’s famous quatrain:

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.”
(‘The Tables Turned’, 1798)

Here a prose paraphrase (for example, ‘One act of nature reveals more about morality than any philosopher’) would capture the overt meaning. However, it would still fail to capture the means by which that meaning is made memorable, that is, by the rhyme and rhythm. With a modernist poem like Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) matters are different. Interpretations of the poem abound, and no single paraphrase would be admissible. But this is far from saying that form and content are somehow one. Indeed, it is hard to see what this would mean even in music, but especially so in any linguistic artefact, given that we are predisposed to find meanings in language even when they’re not there. When Lewis Carroll tells us that “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” (‘Jabberwocky’, 1871), we cannot help but think that toves are some kind of (probably unpleasant) animal, and that ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’ describe their movements. Similarly, with contemporary poet John Ashbery, we find meanings hinted at that are never quite decipherable. For example, in his poem ‘My Philosophy of Life’ he never quite tells us what his philosophy of life in fact is: we are told only that “there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas” and that “That’s what they’re made for!” De Sousa tells us that in Ashbery’s poetry “words are located in highly improbable contexts” but in his case, it is precisely the contexts themselves that are elusive. In their absence we can only guess as what the words refer to. The effect is that of overhearing snippets of conversation in an imperfectly-understood foreign language. and trying in vain to make coherent sense of them.

Walls of Words

According to Eliot, modern poetry has to be difficult. Some of it (though by no means all) does place severe obstacles to understanding. Yet it is far from clear that by subverting readers’ expectations and thus making a ‘naïve’ reading impossible, modernist poetry somehow “brings us closer to what poetry has always been about” as Gibson claims, illicitly introducing the concept of a supposed poetic essence. Surely a naïve reading necessarily precedes a supposedly sophisticated one?

There is a tendency among the contributors to this volume to fetishize opacity. We are told that the poet deliberately makes things difficult, supposedly putting up what Prinz and Mandelbaum describe as a “formal veil” that blocks “smooth passage to content”. Yet poetic form may do exactly the opposite: by virtue of its richly suggestive language and subtle rhythmical effects it may make the content more accessible – more vivid and memorable. Tzaachi Zamir tells us that Milton “intensifies the obliqueness of poetry” by means of his “abstruse syntax” and “long, bewildering sentences” as if Milton were deliberately courting obscurity. Yet his abstruse syntax and long, bewildering sentences, are equally a feature of his prose, whose political effects would have been negligible had his contemporaries found it as baffling as Zamir appears to find his poetry. The implied contrast between philosophical clarity and poetic opacity can be belied by comparing a page of Milton with a page of Kant. We may struggle to understand either, but there is little doubt as to who offers the greatest impediments to understanding.

This prompts the question of whether there is a limit to the degree of opacity or obscurity the reader might be expected to overcome. It is true that many poems present us with problems of interpretation. But, by virtue of its originality and force of language, a poem may produce a powerful emotional effect on us more or less independent of its content. Notoriously, A.E. Housman once confessed of a poem by William Blake that he had no idea what Blake was trying to say in it, but still had no doubt that it was great poetry. Such doubts would have arisen, though, had he thought that Blake was deliberately peddling nonsense. Where there is no especial grace of language, and if we expect there is nothing very interesting or coherent to be found behind the obscuring veil, we are unlikely to have the patience to poke around for meanings. A poem may be obscure because its author is incompetent or merely pretentious. Sherri Irvin, writing on unreadable poems, attempts to analyse one. With some difficulty, and a certain amount of ingenuity, she manages to extract some small sad shards of meaning, then asks, “But is all this worth doing?” Surely the answer must be: No. There’s very limited interest in interrogating writing that’s on or over the edge of unintelligibility. It is only poetry that is ultimately intelligible that is capable of making a difference to our lives. The rest we can safely ignore.

At the tomb of Omar Khayyam
At the tomb of Omar Khayyam by Jay Hambridge

Unveiling Verse

In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek contribution, Simon Blackburn asks whether analytical philosophers are equipped to read poetry at all: Are analytical philosophy’s techniques and presuppositions simply alien to the world of poetry, and thus a barrier to understanding it? In another essay, Roger Scruton in effect jumps the analytical ship to consider the work of Martin Heidegger – in which he finds merit, despite what he sees as the “obfuscation that is second nature” to Heidegger. For Heidegger, the essence of a work of art lies in its capacity for ‘unconcealment’. Whereas most of the time we view the world in an instrumental way, that is, as a repository of things for use – the forest as so much potential timber, the river as a source for hydroelectric power – through a work of art we are enabled to see the world as it is in itself, regardless of human needs. This is a theory that, although applicable to poetry (if with some forcing) is not peculiar to it, and it surely better fits the visual arts. Indeed, Heidegger’s most famous example is Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes. Such a way of speaking, however, can encourage confusion. After all, for most of us (though not for Heidegger , for whom science is just another sort of instrumental thinking) it is precisely science that gives us knowledge of how things are in themselves, free of human concerns, from the formation of stars to the growth of living things, whereas poets are notoriously unreliable on such matters. On the contrary, it is precisely art’s role to reveal the world in the light of human concerns. This is in effect how Scruton interprets Heidegger’s account of art – as a revelation about ourselves. Here Scruton offers his own (slightly obfuscatory) formulation, referring to “the archaeology of consciousness”.

Blackburn invokes the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, who tells us that while “science deals with things as they are in themselves” art is concerned with “things as they affect the human sense and human soul” (The Stones of Venice, 1851). As such, art represents “things as they appear to us.” This is not to deny art its moment of truth, however. The poet is concerned with truth in the rather elusive sense of being true to human experience. Art is in this way species specific. In principle we might come to understand Martian science; but Martian poetry would necessarily remain mysterious.

Typically, philosophy aims at objective truth, art at subjective. Philosophers tell us that the past is unalterable – but it is up to the poet to tell us, in poignant and unforgettable words, what it is like, in human terms, to experience that truth:

“The moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
(Omar Khayyam, in the famous translation of his Rubaiyat by Edward Fitzgerald.)

De Sousa outlines a project of bringing philosophy and poetry closer together, but this may be something of a forced alliance. Reading through this volume does little to confirm the thesis that they have much in common. Artificially yoking them together gives no guarantee of healthy progeny: the result may merely be more bad philosophy on the one hand and more bad poetry on the other. Maybe it is better that they live apart.

© Roger Caldwell 2016

Roger Caldwell a poet living in Essex. His latest poetry collection, Setting Out for the Mad Islands is out now from Shoestring Press.

The Philosophy of Poetry, John Gibson (Editor), Oxford University Press, £40 hb, 253pp, ISBN: 9780199603671

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X